Who Is Paul Penzone? The Sheriff Is Turning Joe Arpaio's Tent City Into A Rehab For Opioid Addicts

Maricopa County, Arizona, has a new sheriff, and from the sounds of things he's nothing like the old one. On Jan. 1, 2017, the county's hyper-controversial ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio departed from public life, having lost his election after being charged with criminal contempt of court. And now, given the new sheriff's plans for Arpaio's infamous immigration detention camp known as "Tent City," a whole lot of people are bound to be asking: who is Sheriff Paul Penzone?

The answer is fairly simple. Penzone is the new sheriff of Maricopa County, and he formerly served over two decades as an officer in the Phoenix Police Department. At age 50, he's dramatically younger than his predecessor was when he departed from the job; Penzone is a full 35 years Arpaio's junior. He's also a Democrat, while the stridently anti-immigrant Arpaio was a Republican, and as The New Phoenix Times reports, he's clearly got a very different vision for his predecessor's notorious open-air jail.

Namely, he's reportedly planning to use it as a facility to combat opioid abuse among the inmate population, in the hopes that it'll "lower the crime rate, save money in detention housing, and transform inmates into productive citizens," according to a statement released on Friday.

The upshot is that one of the most controversial and oft-condemned aspects of Arpaio's tenure will now have the opportunity to leave a positive mark. When Arpaio was in charge, Tent City was a facility in which prisoners were jailed for weeks, months, and even years, exposed to the searing and dangerous Arizona heat.

According to The New York Times, one particularly representative example of the cruelty of the old Tent City was that the cafeteria featured TVs frequently tuned to cooking channels, all while inmates received a meager two servings of food per day.

Arpaio himself once referred to the place as a "concentration camp," and claimed that it flattered him to be accused of being a KKK-style racist, because it "means we're doing something." He subsequently denied actually being honored by the comparison, casting the remark as a joke.

As detailed by The Arizona Republic, Penzone commented on the new use of the Tent City space on Friday, saying he hoped it would stand as an indication that the sheriff's department is headed in a more "holistic" direction.

We want to ensure that they have an opportunity to be productive, to not return here to this jail. I hope that all of those in our community recognize the investment that we are making to become a more holistic Sheriff's Office.

Daniel Scarpinato, the spokesperson for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, also reportedly noted that the investment in addiction treatment would have a positive effect on people's lives and the state budget alike.

If we can make an up-front investment in something like this, it will bring millions of dollars in savings to the state over time and help people turn their lives around.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

It remains to be seen how successful Penzone's tenure as Maricopa County's top law enforcement officer will be, or precisely how long he'll hold the job. There's been very little turnover there in recent decades, thanks to Arpaio's 24 years in office, during which he won six consecutive elections.

In 2012, Arpaio defeated Penzone by a relatively narrow six-point margin. But in 2016, amid a criminal contempt of court charge related to his refusal to obey a court order and halt his discriminatory immigration raids, Arpaio lost to Penzone by 13 points

Although he was ultimately convicted over the matter, Arpaio no longer faces any legal repercussions from the incident, thanks to a pardon he received from President Donald Trump earlier this year.